I promised that if people guessed the Shem HaMephorash, I’d reward them with a list of all the easter eggs in the book. You did, so here it is, two years late. You already got most of these, and you’ve probably forgotten about all this anyway, and maybe listing everything out in order ruins the fun, but let it never be said I didn’t deliver.
You already solved the first easter egg, which is about the structure of the story. In Chapter 9, Uriel explains:
“IN KABBALAH, WE RECOGNIZE CERTAIN DIVISIONS OF ADAM KADMON AS ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT. A FOURFOLD DIVISION, WHICH WE INTERPRET AS FOUR WORLDS. A TENFOLD DIVISION, WHICH WE INTERPRET AS TEN SEPHIROT. A TWENTY-TWO-FOLD DIVISION, WHICH WE INTERPRET AS TWENTY-TWO PATHS BETWEEN SEPHIROT. AND A SEVENTY-TWO-FOLD DIVISION, WHICH WE INTERPRET AS THE SEVENTY-TWO-FOLD EXPLICIT NAME OF GOD. BY UNDERSTANDING ALL OF THESE DIVISIONS, WE LEARN THE STRUCTURE OF ADAM KADMON AND THEREFORE THE ORGANIZATIONAL PRINCIPLES OF THE UNIVERSE.
The character’s universe is the book Unsong, which is indeed organized along these principles: four books, ten authors notes, twenty-two interludes, and seventy-two chapters.
In the last chapter, the Comet King says:
“Any good enough description of God is also a notarikon for His Most Holy Name.”
God is the force creating maximal goodness in the multiverse, so any description of the goodness of the multiverse is a description of God and therefore a notarikon for His name. So in Metatron’s answer to Ana in Chapter 71:
“THE REASON EVIL EXISTS IS TO MAXIMIZE THE WHOLE COSMOS’ TOTAL SUM GOODNESS. SUPPOSE WE RANK POSSIBLE WORLDS FROM BEST TO WORST. EVEN AFTER CREATING THE BEST, ONE SHOULD CREATE THE SECOND-BEST, BECAUSE IT STILL CONTAINS SOME BEAUTY AND HAPPINESS. THEN CONTINUE THROUGH THE SERIES, CREATING EACH UNTIL REACHING THOSE WHERE WICKEDNESS AND SUFFERING OUTWEIGH GOOD. SOME WORLDS WILL INCLUDE MUCH INIQUITY BUT STILL BE GOOD ON NET. THIS IS ONE SUCH.”
…the seventy-two words of the description form a notarikon for a seventy-two letter Name. Since it starts “the reason”, the first two letters are T-R, which corresponds to the description of the Name in the first stanza of “HaMephorash” (“It goes like this / a tav, a resh”). The next eight letters are E-E-I-T-M-T-W-C, which correspond to the second stanza (“Your faith was strong, but you needed proof / hay hay yud tav mem tav vav kuf”), and so on.
Further, the first letter of each of the seventy-two chapters in Unsong spells out the same Name, because the book is meant as a description of God and any description of God is a notarikon for His name.
The second big easter egg is that the book is a very, very loose reinterpretation of William Blake’s prophetic books and constructed mythology.
Blake’s pantheon centers around four male gods and their female counterparts:
URIZEN, the god of reason, and his counterpart AHANIA
LOS, the god of creativity, and his counterpart ENITHARMON (technically these are aspects of Urthona, but I’m ignoring this)
THARMAS, the god of the body, and his counterpart ENION
LUVAH, the god of chaos and passion, and his counterpart VALA
Urizen corresponds to Uriel; Ahania to Sohu.
Los is an ironsmith/storyteller god, and so corresponds to Aaron Smith-Teller; Enitharmon corresponds to Ana Thurmond
Tharmas corresponds to the Comet King’s supercomputer THARMAS, and Enion to Sarah (an NE-1 model MacBook)
Luvah corresponds to Alvarez, and Vala to Erica (I messed up on this one and confused Vala with another Blake character, Orc)
In the same mythology, Satan is messing with all of this, and so the poet John Milton descends to Earth in the form of a comet. He has the inherent poetic genius to sort it all out, but lacks the divine inspiration. Later, this is provided by his female counterpart Ololon, who takes the form of a bird, and who descends into Ulro (a sort of hell-dimension) to encourage Milton to do the same and redeem humanity.
Milton (in the form of a comet) = the Comet King. Ololon (in the form of a bird) = Robin. The Comet King tries to save humanity, but is powerless until Robin descends into Hell in a way that allows him to follow.
Various otherwise meaningless bits of the story fit into the original Blakean framework but not the Unsong one; for example, chapter 41 contains a list of email addresses Aaron has used throughout his life, all of which are variations of his name or initials except one: _LOS_@hotmail.com. This is the Blakean narrative colliding with the Unsong one. Likewise, the chapter names are all taken from Blake and often lampshade which part of the Blakean narrative is being reinterpreted; for example, the chapter where Robin sells her soul to Thamiel is called “And Ololon Said, Let Us Descend Also, And Let Us Give Ourselves To Death In Ulro Among The Transgressors.”
Interlude Mem: Miss American Pie, was one of the last chapters I wrote, so the general plot arc of the book wasn’t deliberately designed to reflect American Pie. But I noticed parts of it already did – nothing is a coincidence – and I sort of enhanced some of them to make it flow better. This is lampshaded in places: for example, the “prophecy” at the end of chapter 48. Other parts are less obvious.
In one of the central connections, “the day the music died” represents the death of Peter Singer long before the narrative opens. Most of this is in Chapter 47, which reveals that Singer died in February (“February made me shiver”) of 1974 (the chapter is set in February 1984, so “for ten years we’ve been on our own). Robin, Singer’s disciple, is left adrift and becomes the “widowed bride”. She mentions that “I did my thesis on him. I wrote dozens of papers. And every time I submitted another paper to the journals…” (“Every paper I’d deliver…) “I thought, things have gotten too bad, I just can’t keep doing this.” (“…bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.”
The chorus has multiple meanings; I don’t want to speculate on whether Miss American Pie is Robin, the Comet King, the United States, or what. But “drove the Chevy to the levee” gets mentioned a few times.
First, Father Ellis is mentioned in Chapter 29 as literally driving a Chevy. He drives the Comet King to the dam holding back the Dillon Reservoir near Silverthorne so he can blow up the dam and use the reservoir to destroy Thamiel’s army – in other words, he drives a literal Chevy to a literal levee, which then dries up.
Second, “shavit” is Hebrew for “comet” and “Levite” is a Hebrew priest. This is the meaning given in the prophecy at the end of Chapter 48: the Comet King was driven to Father Ellis. The good old boys singing this will be the day that we die gets interpreted as a prophecy that the Cometspawn will die the same day Father Ellis does.
Third, “sheva” is Hebrew for “seven”, so the Chevy to the levee also represents the seven-sailed Not A Metaphor being driven towards the Leviathan. The Leviathan is “dry” in the sense that it turns out not to have God and the answer to the mystery that everyone expected. This happens at the instant of the apocalypse, so “this will be the day that I die” is maximally true.
I’ll leave the rest to speculation, except that Dylan watching his Broadway play from the audience while also occasionally participating as a player is clearly “the Jester on the sidelines in a cast”, and that in Chapter 59 Clark’s “hands were clenched in fists of rage” as he watches Dylan on the stage. And Malia Ngo is pretty literally an “angel born in Hell”. As for the flames climbing high into the night, see the title page for Book III.
Speaking of which, in case you didn’t notice, the colon after the number of each book is a link that takes you to the title page of the book and a stanza of Leonard Cohen’s “HaMephorash” (based on the real-world Hallelujah). Cohen himself makes a cameo appearance as the Comet King’s musician in Chapter 71.
Each book is named after a book of the Bible, except Book IV. There is no single book called Kings – it is divided among 1 Kings and 2 Kings. Just calling Book IV “Kings” makes it ambiguous whether I mean 1 Kings or 2 Kings, which matches the plot, where what is thought to be two kings (the Comet King and the Other King) turns out to be just one.
Below are all the other random scattered easter eggs that don’t fit into any larger pattern. I had a hard time deciding what counted as an easter egg, so forgive me if I included things that were obvious or not interesting.
“My name is Aaron Smith-Teller”. In the Blakean parallel, Aaron Smith-Teller represents Los, the iron-smith/storyteller god of creativity. But also Aaron for the Biblical Aaron, who according to legend had the Shem HaMephorash on his forehead. And also “Teller” because of his in-story relationship to Edward Teller, and because he is the teller of the story (Aaron’s myth teller?), and because of the section in Chapter 5 talking about the kabbalistic meaning of bank tellers. Also his initials are AT, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, cf “I am the alpha and omega”. Also consider Aaron = Uranus = heaven, Teller = Tellus = Earth, so Aaron Smith-Teller = Heaven creating Earth, the essence of kabbalah.
“Gebron and Eleazar’s classic textbook” Later (Chapter 5) revealed to be “Kabbalah: A Modern Approach”. This corresponds to Norvig and Russell’s AI: A Modern Approach, as per the general kabbalah = computing analogy. “Gebron” and “Eleazar” are “Norvig” and “Russell” spelled backwards in a sort of pseudo-Hebrew. In early drafts, the book was by “Norvig and Raziel”, but that would have raised more questions than it answered given the archangel’s later (lack of) appearances.
“The timer read 4:33, which is the length of John Cage’s famous silent musical piece” Along with everything else in this paragraph, 4:33 is literal unsong.
“Narwhals of Jericho” A pun on “walls of Jericho”, as per the Biblical whale pun theme explained in Chapter 5.
“Baleen shem tov” A pun on famous rabbi Baal Shem Tov and whales’ baleen, again as per the theme.
“Moabite Dick” A pun on the Biblical nation of the Moabites and famous whale novel Moby Dick.
“Tabarnacle” A pun on the Biblical tabernacle, and whale-related sea creature barnacles.
“A few hours later he’d sent over an analysis from the State Department, which concluded that the ‘language’ consisted of the names of the capitals of various 16th-century European countries, arranged in seemingly random combinations.” Chapter 19 discusses the historical Elizabethan sorcerer John Dee’s claims to have discovered the language of angels. But Dee’s words were suspiciously congruent to his own political opinions. He said the angelic word for “kingdom” was “LONDOH”, which sounds suspiciously like his home city of London. And the angelic word for “evil” was “MADRID”, which sounds suspiciously like the capital of England’s arch-enemy Spain. Chapter 19 posits (and this interlude reflects) a kabbalistic correspondence by which for some reason the angelic language just happens to always consist of the names of European capitals or Elizabethan English terms.
“We call it Ithaca”. Name explained in Chapter 5. After I published this chapter I got an email from a reader who lived in Palo Alto in a group house called Ithaca and who was really freaked out and wanted to know if I was writing about her. I had to convince her it was just a coincidence.
“The Gospel according to Fluke” Another Biblical whale pun, on “Luke” and “fluke”
“Epistle to Philemonstro” On “Philemon” and “Monstro”, the whale in Pinocchio
The first half describes a lexical correspondence of every field of study to the story of Exodus in the Torah based on reappearances of the letters RN (Aaron), and AN (unexplained in the chapter, possibly another version of Aaron) and MSS (Moses). This of course applies to Unsong, whose three main characters are Aaron, Ana, and the Messiah (as the Comet King).
“The letters M-S-S in that order, followed shortly by the establishment of a code of laws”: Five years after the Comet King was born, he rewrote the US Constitution and created the law code of the Untied States (Chapter 31).
“It is Washington who…” This paragraph lists similarities between Moses and Washington – he leads his people to freedom, he destroys an enemy army by crossing a body of water, he creates his people’s law code, and he leads a nation. The Comet King fulfills all of these as well. He creates the new nation of Colorado from the dying USA, he destroys the demonic army using the water of the Lake Dillon Reservoir in Silverthorne, he creates the Untied States Constitution, and he leads Royal Colorado.
“Moses’ wife was named Zipporah, Hebrew for “female bird”, but her American counterpart doesn’t show up until LBJ” A reference to Lady Bird Johnson. The Comet King’s wife is also named after a bird.
“It took all the way until the turn of the millennium before America listened to a bush and then got stuck wandering in a desert without an exit strategy.” A reference to George Bush and the Gulf War. Chapter 72 reveals that the Comet King spent fifteen years as the Other King in Las Vegas, trying to figure out some way to enter Hell without having to kill his family – ie he too spent years in the desert without an exit strategy.
“The original ‘city on a hill’ was Jerusalem…600 shekels…600 talents of gold…600 feet by 600 feet in size…the name of America’s capital Washington is followed by ‘DC’, which is Roman gematria for 600.” Cheyenne Mountain, the Comet King’s capital, the Cheyenne Mountain complex in Colorado Springs, is located 600 m underground.
“‘Washing’ means ‘to place under water’ in English, which mirrors ‘Moses’, meaning ‘to draw out of the water’ in Hebrew”. The Comet King’s given name, Jalaketu, means “water comet” in Sanskrit.
“YOU WILL START BY MEMORIZING THE BOOK OF JEZUBOAD” Unintentionally, the Book of Jezuboad as I described it here is a very close mirror of 2 Esdras, one of the Biblical Apocrypha. The prophet Ezra asks God to explain the divine plan, especially why bad things happen to good people. The archangel Uriel appears before Ezra and says that that the human mind can’t comprehend God’s ways and so his questions can’t be answered.
“That program was Llull” A reference to Ramon Llull, a medieval philosopher who invented a mechanical method for randomly combining ideas in order to form new concepts.
“And what if, with all that money, he were to buy a second computer?” All of this is sort of an analogy/parody of the Bostromian argument about AI, where an intelligent computer has the ability to use its intelligence to obtain more resources, and so potentially more intelligence, in an endless cycle.
“And the widows of Ashur were loud in their whale.” A riff on the first line of the last stanza of Byron’s “The Destruction Of Sennacherib”, “And the widows of Ashur were loud in their wail”.
“Weird Hair Girl was named Erica” In the Blakean parallel, Erica is Orc, god of rebellion. Her last name Lowry is a notarikon for Orc’s epithet, “Lover Of Wild Rebellion”, which is also the title of Chapter 53.
“Tolkien, Asimov, Salby” This is a nod to The Northern Caves, another online serial popular among the fans of Unsong, which focuses on the mysterious final book of children’s author Leonard Salby.
“Zayinty the economist, Chetlock the prognosticator, Tetkowsky the futurist, Yudka the novelist, good old Kaf ben Clifford”. All of these are real authors with their names moved one Hebrew letter backwards. Zayinty = (Raj) Chetty, Chetlock = (Philip) Tetlock, Tetkowsky = (Eliezer) Yudkowsky, Yudka = (Franz) Kafka, Kaf ben Clifford = Lamed ben Clifford, the pen name of Lon Milo Duquette.
“I recognized a few I’d seen before by their covers alone.” These are all twisted versions of books popular among Unsong fans or in the rationalist community. A lot of them are part of the general kabbalah = computer science analogy.
“Nachman Bernstein’s Divinity” = Nick Bostrom’s “Superintelligence”
“Nachman Eretz’s Alphanomics” “Eretz” is Hebrew for “land”, so this is Nick Land’s “Alphanomics” blog posts on kabbalah.
“Menelaus Moleman’s Letter to the Open-Minded Atheist” Mencius Moldbug’s “Letter To The Open-Minded Progressive”
“Ben Aharon’s Gematria Since Adam” “Ben Aharon” is Hebrew for “Aaronson”, so this is Scott Aaronson’s “Quantum Computing Since Democritus”
“Rachel Sephardi’s Arriving At Aleph” Rachel was sister of the Biblical Leah, Hebrew sepher = Latin liber, so this is Leah Libresco’s “Arriving At Amen”.
“Rav Kurtzweil’s The Age Of Mechanized Spirituality” Ray Kurtzweil’s “The Age Of Spiritual Machines”
“The collected works of Eliezer ben Moshe” A reference to the Less Wrong Sequences, written by Eliezer Yudkowsky (son of Moshe Yudkowsky). I later learned there was a famous kabbalist named Elazar ben Moshe, so I guess this is sort of a conflation of the two of them.
It was in this atmosphere that Reverend Raymond E. Stevens of the Unitarian Church had written The Temple And The Marketplace Raymond E. Stevens, a leader of the open-source kabbalah movement, is a reference to Eric Steven Raymond, a leader of the open-source computing movement. “The Temple And The Marketplace” is a reference to Raymond’s own book “The Cathedral And The Bazaar”, with its central metaphor reversed.
“God is born free, but everywhere is in chains!” A reference to Rousseau’s slogan “Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains”.
“86% of known Names are held by seven big theonomic corporations.” The names of these corporations are kabbalistic references to seven of the biggest tech companies. Microprosopus = Microsoft. Gogmagog = Google. Amalek = Amazon. Countenance = Facebook. Tetragrammaton = Yahoo. eLeshon = eBay. Serpens = Apple.”
“I recognized Bill Dodd…” All the people in Ana and Erica’s Unitarian group are named after Job’s friends in the Bible. Bill Dodd = Bildod, Eli Foss = Eliphas, Ally Hu = Elihu, Zoe Farr = Zophar.
“Unsong,” I suggested. This explains the title of the book and basically presents its thesis/central question. If the divine plan is analogized to music, evil isn’t just silence, it’s some sort of opposite-music that seems worse than no music at all. It’s not just a absence but something that was deliberately created. The mystery of why a good God would create evil corresponds to the mystery of why the good Comet King would found UNSONG, later revealed to have been for the greater good. This discussion of theodicy is the core question of the book – hence the title.
“The house is called Ithaca because it’s where theodicy happens.” Some people apparently didn’t get this one. “Where theodicy happens” = “Where The Odyssey happens.”
“I’m asexual.” In the Blakean parallel, Enitharmon is a goddess of chastity.
“The girl who picketed in front of the World’s Fair back in 2012, waving a sign saying “NO IT ISN’T” – Interprets “the world’s fair” as the claim “the world is fair” and gives the obvious response. This is maybe my favorite sentence in the whole book.
“Ruth and Bowhead” Biblical whale pun on “Ruth and Boaz”
“Shamu Yisrael” Pun on the famous killer whale Shamu and the Jewish prayer that begins “Shema Yisrael…”
“He was killed by a car bomb on his way to a talk in Salt Lake City” I intentionally set this up as a parallel to the song Joe Hill. Some people noticed, and one commenter was kind enough to rewrite it appropriately – see http://unsongbook.com/interlude-%d7%92-cantors-and-singers/#comment-938. Other readers found various parallels and coincidences I never intended, like that a famous rendition of Joe Hill was sung by a man named “Peter Seeger”, or that the canonical online version is hosted at unionsongs.com, which looks suspiciously like “unsong”.
“I know Alvarez”. In the Blakean parallel, Alvarez corresponds to Luvah, god of passion. Luvah rules the East, so the ritual magicians really should have been able to predict Dylan would be on the East Coast.
“Before me, Michael,” said Ronald in the north.” Traditionally in ritual magic, Michael is placed at the right hand, Gabriel at the left, Uriel in front, and Raphael behind. The directions in the Unsongverse are changed slightly. Assuming the magician is facing north, Uriel is behind because he represents Urizen, who corresponds to the south in Blake’s mythos (and Uriel correspondingly lives in the Gulf of Mexico south of the US). Raphael has been replaced with Raziel and moved to the left = west, because Raziel is Comet West.
“Caecilius est in horto,” chanted Dylan. “Servus est in atrio.” These are sentences from Cambridge Latin, everyone’s favorite Latin 101 textbook. They mean “Caecilius is in the garden. The servant is in the atrium.” Dylan is mocking Carolyn’s Latin rituals by saying random Latin 101 sentences.
“Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in a cave and composed 1700 pages of kabbalistic texts, is an exception and should be considered separately.” This is a reference to Tumblr’s Spiders Georg meme. Yes, I feel bad about this.
“The old rabbinic proverb against delving too deep into arcane secrets: ??? ?????????? ?????????? , meaning “don’t go into the caves”. This is another Northern Caves reference.
“MOST OF IT RUNS ON SAPPHIRES ON PATHS, BUT I USE RUBY ON RAILS FOR THE DATABASES.” Sapphires on paths is a pretty good description of the sephirot and the Tree of Life; Ruby on Rails is a programming language.
“The kabbalists were still underground, sometimes literally” Another “Rabbi Shimon lived in a cave” joke.
“If they could have, they would have demanded that “HaShem” be replaced with something else too, except that “HaShem” literally just meant “the Name” and so was already maximally vague.” Some readers speculated that this is why Ana curses by saying “euphemism!”. This wasn’t planned but I agree it makes sense.
“Which turned out to sound sort of like “JA-HO-RAH”. This is nowhere near the correct real-world pronunciation. But atheist as I am, I couldn’t bring myself to actually mock the Tetragrammaton in a book, so instead we got this vaguely Tetragrammaton-sounding thing.
“And Ana tried to tie this into her own theory of music vs. silence vs. unsong…anyone who understood the Digrammaton would understand the Shem haMephorash too, and everything else beside” Cf. Chapter 71. God creates everything from maximally good universes to essentially neutral universes, but not evil universes.
“WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMAKER?” A joke on “who watches the watchmen” and the metaphor of the Creator God as a “blind watchmaker”.
“A MILE SOUTH WEST OF IONE CALIFORNIA” This corresponds to the town of Dagon, California, which I thought was a suitably ominous Biblical name.
“The west-east movement reverses itself, and the east-west course of the sun and the world takes over.” This passage sets up west as corresponding to destruction and the end of the world, which becomes pretty significant once we meet Jala West.
“But where did he sit?” This was originally intended just to make Pirindiel seem kind of confused about everything and not with-it enough to understand human furniture, but enough people interpreted it as a brilliant reference to an obscure Talmudic passage suggesting that angels had no knees and couldn’t sit down that I just kind of rolled with it.
“Paulus the Lawless, the Witch-King of Wichita, the Oklahoma Ochlocracy” I regret not getting a chance to flesh any of this out. I had a draft in which the Oklahoma Ochlocracy existed side-by-side with nations like the Utah Utopia, the Kansas Kakistocracy, the Arizona Aristocracy, the Arkansas Archonate, etc, but I had to clear all of them out to create some room for actual plot-relevant geography.
This is literally a crackpot theory.
“ALTHOUGH THE SERPENT INTRODUCES SIN INTO THE WORLD AND THE MESSIAH REDEEMS THE WORLD FROM SIN, BOTH ARE KABBALISTICALLY IDENTICAL”. Along with the last chapter, this introduces the idea of the Messiah as the worst of sinners.
The stranger seized the threads, pulled them forward, sheared them to their essence. HRCN. Then he rearranged them, made them dance. CHRN. Then fleshed them out. ACHERON. The river that formed the boundary of Hell. Sohu felt the storm darken, become deathly hot. Somehow the transmutation was affecting reality.. It doesn’t really matter here, but given the shown-elsewhere ability to easily create vavs by transforming vowels to consonants, either side could have summoned Crhvano, the placebo demon made of Scrabble tiles in Chapter 8.
The motto “I TEGO ARCANA DEI”. Begone, I hide the secrets of God. There were deep kabbalistic depths in that phrase, but I didn’t have the energy to think about them, because something was horribly wrong. This comes from “The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail”, but see http://mysteriouswritings.com/secret-meaning-to-the-phrases-of-et-in-arcadia-ego-and-i-tego-arcana-dei-revealed/ for a short introduction.
“Cause in God’s Name they built a barbed wire fence”. From the quote. Note the double meaning.
“YOU WENT BEYOND THE EDGE OF THE WORLD AND RECITED THE BIBLE. YOU INJECTED THE CODE FOR THE ORIGINAL SYSTEM VIA A BUFFER OVERFLOW ATTACK.” This was a reader suggestion. I can’t remember what I was originally thinking, but this was better.
sky.smh not found, please repent transgressions and try again. SMH is the three-letter Hebrew root of the word shamayim meaning sky. I thought file type suffixes and Hebrew root words both having three letters was a neat coincidence.
The Long March was finally over. A pun on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_March
She was hiking with her brother in the hills of Colorado; while he dozed off in a meadow, she had wandered off exploring. This whole chapter, and a lot of the Comet King’s story, is a tribute to The Song Of Hiawatha, one of my favorite poems. Hiawatha was the son of the West Wind and an Indian maiden; Jalaketu is the son of Comet West and an Indian maiden. In the Song, the West Wind lives on the highest of the Rocky Mountains; in Unsong, Comet West descends onto the highest of the Rocky Mountains. In the Song, the West Wind is described as having hair “like the comet”; in Unsong, Comet West is described as having hair like the wind. In both, the hero’s mother dies in childbirth, and the hero is raised by his grandmother. The sentence above in bold is an explicit tribute; it’s written in the meter of Song of Hiawatha.
“I am Comet West. I am both of these things.” This is a Godkingbird quote/tribute/reference.
And so in November 1976, behold, a virgin conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Jalaketu. Western astronomy has specific named comets like Halley’s Comet and Comet Hale-Bopp. Indian astronomy also has specific named comets, and Jalaketu is one of them. Its name means “water comet”, a parallel to Moses (whose name means “they drew him out of the water”) and Washington (whose name refers to washing). According to Indian astronomy, Jalaketu comes from the west (cf. Comet West, the kabbalistic meaning of west) and brings an age of peace and plenty and the removal of all malign celestial powers.
“Thi-” I started, just as Ana said “That’s racist.” Aaron was going to say “Third plague”, eg lice, making a joke about it sounding like rice with a Chinese accent.
” I TRIED FRIGHTENING THEM BY TURNING THEIR RIVERS TO BLOOD, BUT THEY JUST MURMURED SOMETHING ABOUT “PHYTOPLANKTON” AND KEPT DOING IT.” This is a reference to the Prologue, which is itself a reference to various speculation that various supposed miracles about things turning to blood might just be red tides full of microorganisms.
“WEAR SUNSCREEN” Good advice for wandering in a desert, but also a reference to Kurt Vonnegut’s famous “wear sunscreen” graduation speech. See http://scripting.com/specials/commencement.html
“IT INVOLVES VARIOUS INTERACTIONS BETWEEN SEPHIROT AND KLIPOT. ARE YOU FAMILAR WITH THESE? IF NOT I CAN EXPLAIN.” According to legend, God explained the kabbalah to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
“I PERFORM SERVER MAINTENANCE ON SATURDAYS. THIS MEANS LOWER CAPACITY. SO PLEASE AVOID HIGH-LOAD ACTIVITIES LIKE BUSINESS TRANSACTIONS, AGRICULTURAL WORK, AND ELECTRICITY USE DURING THAT TIME. SO YES. THAT IS A LAW.” This is a reference to Jewish laws surrounding the Sabbath.
“UM. THIS IS ACTUALLY MORE COMPLICATED TO EXPLAIN THAN I THOUGHT. ELECTRICITY IS KIND OF LIKE STARTING A FIRE. YOU WILL KNOW IT WHEN YOU SEE IT.” A rabbinic tradition holds that the prohibitions against starting a fire on the Sabbath also apply to using electricity, because electricity is basically just a complicated form of fire.
“In a dimly-lit chamber two thousand feet underground, quiet as death, seven people sat at a table. Seven seder plates. Seven cups of wine.” Traditionally an extra cup should be left out for Elijah. But Father Ellis kabbalistically corresponds to Elijah in terms of his name (Ellis is from the Greek for Elijah), his role as the forerunner of the Messiah (Comet King), and his eventual fate (bodily ascension to Heaven aboard a flying vehicle). Since he is already here, no extra cup is necessary.
“It seemed like Edward Kelley might have been injecting his personal opinions into these transmissions just a little. Or, as we moderns sometimes say, that the medium was the message.” A pun on medium as a spiritual person who conducts a seance.
“The king is a fricking nimrod, thought Samyazaz to himself” In the Bible, the king who ordered the construction of the Tower of Babel was named Nimrod, meaning “mighty hunter”. In early Bugs Bunny cartoons, Bugs mocks Elmer Fudd by calling him “a nimrod” (ie someone who thinks he’s a mighty hunter but isn’t) but audiences misunderstood and the word became a generic insult. Since this part is set in Babel, the king is both Nimrod and “a nimrod”.
“Heck, eighty years ago the king’s daughter had been sad because her lips weren’t rosy enough, and fellow forbidden-knowledge-bringer Gadiriel had suggested she crush some red rocks into a pigment and then paint it on herself, and people were still talking about this and worrying it would lead to everyone turning into sex-crazed maniacs.” According to various apocryphal texts, Gadiriel was the fallen angel who invented cosmetics. I adopted this into her role as the angel of celebrity in Unsong.
“Do it for the mighty one,” he said, speaking the words of power that his sort had bred deep into these people’s unconscious. This is sort of an homage to Snow Crash, especially since we’re in Sumeria. Later it is revealed that, since “mighty one” in Hebrew is “gibbor”, this is directly equivalent to Reagan’s slogan “do it for the Gipper” and part of the reason why he is able to magically attract everyone’s support.
He pushed the slave aside and headed back in the direction of his brewery. He could definitely use some beer right now. Angels cannot get drunk, which suggests Samyazaz is going to “use” beer for something other than drinking it. This is the first hint that he’s going to try to leverage his mastery of intoxicants to help create a more efficient and less corruptible work force as the future Drug Lord.
“The sky had once been full of clouds. Big clouds, little clouds, dark clouds, bright clouds. Clouds sculpted into great gleaming palaces of alabaster, clouds carved into fortresses red with the light of sunset. Clouds linked by rainbow bridges, clouds walled with icy ramparts, clouds lit by pillars of lightning, great frigates of cloud that sailed the jet stream packed with legions of angels going off to war.” Not an easter egg exactly, but a reader who had the cloud-to-butt plugin ( https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/cloud-to-butt-plus/apmlngnhgbnjpajelfkmabhkfapgnoai?hl=en ) wrote in saying that this paragraph was really confusing.
“And now, do you see something more like, say, a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea?” This is a William Blake reference. See eg http://www.blakesociety.org/about-blake/gilchrists-life-of-blake/title-preface-contents/ . “I ASSERT, for myself, that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. “What!” it will be questioned, “when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?” Oh! no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” The suggestion is that Blake alone was able to see through Uriel’s transformation of the world to see it as it appears in the original divine light.
“Uriel plucked a geometer’s compass out of the storm. He crouched above the tree. The clouds behind him parted to reveal the setting sun, and for a second he was framed in the golden light, ancient in aspect, terrible in majesty, tracing circles only he could see.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ancient_of_Days . This is another hint that Uriel = Blake’s Urizen.
“Only God can make a tree,” said Gabriel angrily. See https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/12744
The highest point in Jerusalem was King Solomon’s Temple Mount; the highest point in San Francisco is the suspiciously-named Mount Davidson. In case it’s not clear, the correspondence here is that Solomon was the son of King David.
She reached the tower. Needless to say, there was a spiral staircase. The inside was covered in colorful murals. The symbolism was unclear. A man crumpling a newspaper. A library. Endless fruit trees, vast machinery, scenes of devastation. Empty-eyed people crammed together like crabs in a bucket or the damned in Hell. A woman swimming in a cloud, a thousand feet above what was recognizably San Francisco. A doorway flanked by the sun and moon, with two great Eyes staring forth from thunderclouds above. This is Coit Tower in San Francisco. All the murals are real. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coit_Tower . If you’re ever in San Francisco, it’s a fun place to go visit.
“Listen!” said the man. “One plus one is two. If you don’t eat, you die. P implies not not P. Prices are controlled by the law of supply and demand, and are the only fair way of managing scarcity.” These and the next few paragraphs are various rules, tradeoffs, and limits. Some of them are verses from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Gods Of The Copybook Headings”; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gods_of_the_Copybook_Headings
Stephen Jay Gould, a biologist working at Harvard University, tried to stabilize the burgeoning philosophical disaster with his theory of “non-overlapping magisteria”. This is a parody and reversal of Gould’s theory of non-overlapping magisteria in our own universe, which says that science is right about the world but religion can teach us moral and inspirational truths. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria
The kabbalistic Avgad cipher decodes “Lenin” into “Moses”. This is sort of true. Avgad replaces every Hebrew letter with the one after it, so lamed-nun-nun becomes mem-samech-samech. It’s a bit of a stretch because it requires using the Hebrew letters but the English versions of the names (ie “Moses” in Hebrew is “Moshe”).
After a little exploration he found his way into an underground chamber holding an amazing treasure. Eight thousand terracotta soldiers, horseman, and chariots, all perfectly lifelike, frozen in warlike postures. This is a reference to the discovery of See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terracotta_Army
Thus the saying that sprang up in the wake of the trip: “Only Nixon can go to Hell.” This is a reference to “Only Nixon can go to China”. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixon_goes_to_China
“All those people crucified. Isn’t right. Crucifixion. Horrible way to die.” The Captain expresses a really vehement distaste for crucifixion in this chapter. Given the later reference that he speaks with the voice of God, if one were Christian one could interpret this as being based on negative personal experience.
Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and though thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the LORD. — Obadiah 1:4 Taken from a YouTube video which claimed it was a prophecy of the Apollo 11 mission.
She knew a minute longer up there and she would have lost herself, lost even the ability to know what losing herself entailed, lost the ability to think or feel or know or question anything ever again, turned into a perfect immobile crystal that was blindingly beautiful and totally inert. – This was what happened to me the one and only time I tried taking LSD.
In my spare time, I play the violin competitively. I help blind children. I raise awareness of healthy plant-based foods. The violin is a reference to “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”. In Interlude Yud, Thamiel helps another demon blind a child. The plant-based food is a reference to the temptation of Eve with an apple.
The iron smith-storyteller god forging dreams for an emotionally starved world. The phrase “iron smith-storyteller” is another hint that Aaron Smith-Teller is supposed to be identified with Los.
“Somebody has stolen the seventh dragon.” Compare to the seven-headed dragon in the Book of Revelation
Some people said Thamiel had specifically intervened to keep VHS running, for the sake of the Broadcast In Chaper 70, it’s revealed that he kept video running so he could send the Comet King tapes of his wife’s suffering.
“A talking ship?” I could swear my English teacher gave this exact speech, including “talking ship”, but I can’t find any reference anywhere else to a talking ship being necessary for an epic, so maybe I’m imagining things.
“It keeps the vav, but it finishes with tav and resh. That’s a very special combination. Tav goes up from Malkuth, at the very bottom of the tree, and then resh goes straight up again, until you’re all the way at Tiferet in two moves. And from Tiferet you can go anywhere. A tav-resh is the shortest path, it’s efficiency, it’s no-nonsense, it’s utilitarian, it’s for when you need a lot of power really really quickly.” Compare to the first verse of HaMephorash: “It goes like this: a tav, a resh”. This explains why this is the beginning of the Explicit Name of God.
“ONCE UPON A TIME, RABBI BEN AZZAI, RABBI BEN ZOMA, THE OTHER ONE, AND RABBI AKIVA VISITED AN ORCHARD. BEN AZZAI SAW IT AND DIED. BEN ZOMA SAW IT AND WENT CRAZY. THE OTHER ONE BURNED DOWN ALL THE TREES. AKIVA CAME IN PEACE AND DEPARTED IN PEACE. THE END.” Uriel’s story is the legend of Pardes – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pardes_(legend) for some of the many traditional interpretations.
IN DEFIANCE OF DEUTERONOMY 22:6, WHICH SAYS ‘HE WHO SHALL HURT THE LITTLE WREN, WILL NEVER BE BELOVED BY MEN. Uriel says he is “translating” Deuteronomy, but this is actually from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”.
“HE EVEN BOILED A GOAT IN ITS MOTHER’S MILK. WHICH BY THE WAY IS WHY THERE IS NO LONGER A CITY OF POMPEII.” Acher probably lived in the second half of the first century AD, so the timing checks out.
“I AM VERY BUSY. I CANNOT KEEP TRACK OF EVERY TALMUDIC RABBI.” One story about the fate of Acher is told at the beginning of Chapter 72.
“Simeon,” said the man, holding out his hand. The Simeon Azore character is based on Peter Thiel – very rich businessman, early investor in Countenance (this world’s version of Facebook), morally ambiguous in that he has a lot of plans to improve the world but they’re all a little Machiavellian and not very popular. Even his name is a Thiel reference; Simeon is the Biblical character later renamed Peter, and Azore = Azure = Teal = Thiel.
leaning against some sort of weird arcane Comet King weapon that looked kind of like a harpoon This was my official Chekov’s Gun so that you weren’t allowed to complain I hadn’t brought up the harpoon before.
“Wait a second! You’re Erin Hope!” Erin is loosely based on Brittany Spears, including her name: Brittany and Erin (=Ireland) are both Celtic countries, and Spears is pretty close to “sperare”, Latin for “hope”.
The Rebbe had a funny way of showing it. He’d made the Mayor wait until midnight for an appointment – that was always the rule, too busy with religious functions during the day – A lot of this chapter was taken from Koch’s real-world recollections of his meetings with the Rebbe, including the Rebbe making him wait until very late while he saw other petitioners.
Who even had goats in Brooklyn? This maybe isn’t very funny to anyone except me, but all the stories I read about great rabbis have them adjudicating livestock-related disputes, to the point where I had trouble thinking of another thing for the Rebbe be doing at this hour.
She loosed the imprisoned lightning of her terrible swift torch. This is a portmanteau of New Colossus’ “a mighty woman with a torch whose flame was the imprisoned lightning” and Battle Hymn of the Republic’s “loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword”.
Let mortal tongues awake; Let all that breathe partake; Let rocks their silence break, The sound prolong. A lot of people were confused why I included My Country Tis Of Thee in here. It was mostly for this verse about nonliving objects coming to life to help protect freedom.
Who respects the infant’s faith As always, the title of this chapter is a Blake quote. I chose this verse both because it describes Ellis trusting the two-year-old Jala, but also because the couplet concludes “…triumphs over Hell and Death”, foreshadowing the Comet King’s apparent return from the grave, and ultimate victory.
Sitting in his car, Father Ellis contemplated the Exodus. Father John Ellis is the story’s version of the John the Baptist / Elijah character who is supposed to accompany the Messiah. There’s some speculation that the historical Elijah was a priest, so John gets to be one as well. Like Elijah, he ends up going to Heaven on a “fiery chariot”.
Aunt Samira will be well. I promised my friend Samira a cameo.
The car’s gear stick turned into a snake. A reference to Moses proving his power to Pharaoh by turning his staff into a snake, and one of many Moses = Jala parallels scattered throughout the book.
And other stories, too, from a big book that it wrote a very long time ago. One of many hints that Jala’s father is the archangel Raziel. This archangel has a big book, the Sepher Raziel, that contains all the secrets of kabbalah.
“No.” Jalaketu smiled. “My mother was a Hindu, but Hinduism passes through the paternal line. My father, perhaps if he teaches me Torah then he is Jewish. But Judaism passes through the maternal line. I am nothing.” My brother (Jewish) was dating a Hindu girl for a while. They thought through exactly this line of reasoning.
“Jalaketu parried easily with his sword, the great sword Sigh, the sword his father had made for him, the sword which would always answer the call of him and his descendants wherever they might be.” The name of the sword is a reference to Blake’s “The Grey Monk”, which contains the line “A Sigh is the sword of an angel king”.
The oncoming wall of holy water crashed into the hosts of Hell with a bang and snuffed them out like sparks before a fire extinguisher. This is likely the water from the Dillon Reservoir ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dillon_Reservoir ) just outside Silverthorne. The drowning of the enemy forces underneath a wall of water is the second major Moses parallel in this chapter; Jala shooting off the signal flare corresponds to Moses raising his rod. Of course, the water is holy water thanks to the efforts of Father Ellis. Also, given that Father Ellis drives a Chevy Nova and that they must have blown up some kind of dam, this matches the “drove the Chevy to the levee” verse in American Pie, later revealed to be prophetic.
“I am the Comet King. Bow. Swear fealty. Now.” In earlier drafts, this was “I am the Comet King. Kneel”, which I think scans better, but given what I did with Neil Armstrong earlier I worry nobody would have taken it seriously.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the Wall Drug signs began to appear. A tribute to Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, which starts “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold”.
Before the sky cracked, Wall Drug had been a shopping center in South Dakota. I never really ended up going anywhere with this Wall Drug story, but someone on the subreddit made a good case that it’s the prison of the archangel Gabriel: https://www.reddit.com/r/unsong/comments/5wj2or/the_secret_of_wall_drug_theory_heavy_spoiler/
Beyond Barstow was Yermo, whose name meant “wilderness”, and Nebo, named for the tomb of Moses. On we drove, over the Hollow Hills, through the Yarrow Ravine Rattlesnake Habitat, past the Alien Jerky Store. We passed Zzyzx – a name made for kabbalistic analysis if ever there was one. We sped through the dishonestly-named dingy border town of Primm, then the honestly-named dingy border town of Roach. We saw the Spring Mountains, crossed to the far side of Paradise. These are all real places. The Mojave Desert is weird. I have a picture of my parents standing in front of the Alien Jerky Store, for some reason.
On July 29 they met in the Never Summer Mountains near Fort Collins In 2001, July 29 was Tisha B’Av, the day on the Hebrew calendar when all of the worst disasters befall the Jewish people. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tisha_B%27Av
When Taos fell to the Other King six years ago, the monks brought their relics and archives to Angel Fire, and from there the relics were flown up to the angels themselves for safekeeping. Angel Fire is just a place in the relevant part of New Mexico. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel_Fire,_New_Mexico
“Treaties are delicate things; the Treaty of Rome alone probably has a hundred articles – ”” “Two hundred forty eight.” I didn’t notice this when writing the chapter, but an alert commenter pointed out that the 248 articles of the Treaty of Rome correspond to the 248 positive mitzvot in Judaism.
Interesting. It had been a very long time since anybody last thought much about haGibborim. The Hebrew name for the semi-fallen angels who interfere on Earth, such as Samyazaz and Gadiriel. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibborim_(biblical)
Who do you think whispered the Battle Hymn into Julia Ward Howard’s ears as she slept? Julia Ward Howe claims she woke from a dream with the Battle Hymn clear in her mind, then wrote it all down by candlelight, afraid she would forget it if she went back to sleep.
“I accept your apology, Jalaketu ben Kokab”. Originally Gadiriel calls him “Jalaketu ben Raziel”, showing she knows he is descended from Comet West = Raziel. Here she calls him Jalaektu ben Kokab, meaning “Jalaketu son of a star”. “Ben Kokab” is the Hebrew equivalent of the Aramaic “Bar Kochba”, the nickname of Simon Bar Kochba, a Jewish rebel leader in ancient Israel who was widely believed to be the Messiah; he was deemed “Bar Kochba” because of a prophecy comparing the Messiah to a star. Gadiriel is drawing a deliberate parallel, but can’t say “Bar Kochba” because angels can’t speak Aramaic.
“I didn’t feed Lincoln all those battle plans through Nettie Maynard just to let people break the Union when things got tough.” According to rumors common at the time, Lincoln consulted celebrity medium Nettie Maynard to get spirits’ advice on how to win the Civil War. See https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/02/14/abraham-lincoln-necromancer/ for more.
“Typo in the title,” said the Lady. “No,” said Jalaketu. “There isn’t.” They’re referring to the name change from United States to Untied States.
Jalaketu answered: “It is not in Heaven.” This comes from a Jewish legend where several rabbis are debating Torah. One rabbi says he is definitely right, and asks God for a sign. God’s booming voice shakes the house of study, saying “YES, HE IS RIGHT”. The other rabbis say “It is not in Heaven”, and continue to argue the point – ie, once God sent the Torah from Heaven to Earth, it is for the people of Earth to interpret as they wish, and they do not need to respect further direct communication from God interfering with that process. This is the same as the modern idea of “death of the author”.
“The face behind Bareketh Capital and an early-level investor in Countenance” Continuing the “Simeon Azore = Peter Thiel” joke, Bareketh Capital = Mithril Capital. Bareketh is a mysterious shiny stone in the Torah which is probably the closest Biblical equivalent to mithril. Countenance still = Facebook.
Why had he let Sohu convince him to come here? The word “Madrid” meant “evil” in his own language, how had that not been a warning sign? The word “Madrid” does in fact mean “evil” in the Enochian language as recorded by John Dee and Edward Kelly, see Chapter 19 for details.
The Comet King has four children representing the four cardinal points and the four classical races of man. Nathanda is African, and her name means “star” in the Tumbuka language of southern Africa. Caelius is European, and his name means “heavens” in Latin. Jinxiang is Asian, and her name means “bright star” in Chinese. Sohu is Native American, and her name means “star” or “comet” in Hopi. In particular, Sakwa Sohu is a legendary comet that will herald the coming apocalypse.
A demonic ziggurat. That’s wrong on so many levels I think I stole this from Demitri Martin’s “Having sex in an elevator is wrong on so many levels”.
I went into the cacti, and the cacti went into the people, and they learned new things from me. The story I tried to hint at here was that after he failed at building the Tower of Babel, and fresh from his success inventing beer, Samyazaz went from Sumeria to Mexico. He perfected the “use addictive substances to control people” shtick and got back into the ziggurat-building business.
“[You cannot serve both God and mammal] I quoted at her.” From Matthew 6:24: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon”
[Ana ba’ey mishal b-shlamek?] I asked her. Aramaic for “How are you doing?”
Thus was born Celestial Virgin. A pun on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and on an epithet of Mary’s.
Competitors sprung up – HeavenX, Blue Origen Blue Origen is a pun on Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin and the third-century philosopher Origen, who believed that ideally everyone would be saved and go to Heaven, even demons.
She watched in disbelief as a big black dog bounded up and sat in front of her. The Captain is the earthly incarnation of God, so as everything reverses he becomes a dog.
It reminded her of those black dogs that ye olde English had viewed as signs of death, the ones that would appear on windswept moors. IE an omen, because the Captain’s name is Nemo and everything has reversed.
“Good dog?” she asked? The fundamental question of theodicy that Ana has devoted her life to, in reverse.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, _LOS_@hotmail.com, A_IS_FOR_ADAM@myfreeemails.tk… All of Aaron’s email addresses he’s used throughout his life. More hinting that Aaron = Blakean Los (and apparently realizes it? Not sure what to think about that). The last one is a pun on Edward Teller’s “A is for atom” poem, suggesting he imagines himself as (aspires to be?) a kabbalistic version of Teller.
PATCH 5776.11 IS NOW COMPLETE. WORK HAS BEGUN ON PATCH 5777.0. HERE IS A FINAL CHANGELOG FOR PATCH 5776.11: 5776 is the old year in the Jewish calendar; 5777 was the coming New Year. This is all just a big joke about various things that happened the past year being related to Uriel’s system maintenance. I’m not going to explain everything, but I’ll mention a few of the better or more obscure ones.
HUMANS NO LONGER DEPLETE WILLPOWER WHEN ENGAGING IN DIFFICULT TASKS; GLUCOSE NO LONGER NECESSARY TO REPLENISH IT. A reference to the scientific consensus around ego depletion shifting. The book suggests that it’s not that the earlier studies were wrong and failed to replicate, it’s just that Uriel has changed the way reality works.
USER FFUKUYAMA COMPLAINS THAT THE POLITICAL SYSTEM HAS BECOME BORING. IN ORDER TO MAKE THINGS MORE INTERESTING, FIRST WORLD COUNTRIES WILL OCCASIONALLY FLIRT WITH FAR-RIGHT NATIONALISM. A reference to Francis Fukuyama’s “End Of History” thesis, where he speculates that liberal democracy has won and there won’t be any further large-scale historical change. Needless to say, this isn’t how things turned out.
THANKS TO USER RDAWKINS FOR POINTING OUT SEVERAL CONTRADICTIONS IN THE BIBLE. THESE HAVE BEEN FIXED. I CONTINUE TO OFFER 2.56 SHEKELS TO ANYONE WHO REPORTS A NEW BIBLICAL CONTRADICTION. This is a reference to famous computer scientist Donald Knuth offering $2.56 to anyone who could find an error in his computer science books. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knuth_reward_check
UPDATED WHO WILL DIE BY FIRE AND WHO BY WATER, WHO BY SWORD AND WHO BY FAMINE. NOBODY WILL DIE FROM WILD BEASTS. PLEASE STOP REQUESTING THIS FEATURE. This is a reference to the Unetanneh Tokef prayer for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where Jews recite a verse about how God decides “Who will die from fire, and who by water, and who by sword…” and so on. This is also the basis for Leonard Cohen’s song “Who By Fire”.
SPELLING OF “BERENSTEIN BEARS” CHILDREN’S SERIES REMAINS UNSTABLE. There’s a famous phenomenon where everyone thinks the books are called “Berenstein Bears”, but they’re actually called “Berenstain Bears”. This has led to joking speculation about alternate universes – see https://mandelaeffect.com/berenstein-or-berenstain-bears/ . One of the admins handling the Unsongbook.com site had the brilliant idea of adding a script that randomly displayed “Berenstein” or “Berenstain” to different people whenever the word was used in the comments, leading to a huge argument where people started doubting their sanity.
SHIPS GIVEN THE NAME “WINDOC” ALWAYS CRASH INTO BRIDGES. THIS IS NOT AN EASTER EGG AND I AM STILL TRYING TO FIND OUT WHY IT HAPPENS. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windoc
thus was born the ICKM – the inter-continental kabbalistic missile. A pun on ICBM / intercontinental ballistic missile
“Random proles. Not a great king or warrior in the lot. This is a reference to philosopher R.M. Hare’s famous essay on utilitarianism, “The Archangel And the Prole”, where he describes two different forms of moral reasoning. The Archangel is a perfect being who always does everything right, so he can simply calculate the correct moral action and do it. The prole is an ordinary person subject to biases and mistakes, so he uses moral heuristics in order to avoid having to do any complicated decision-making. This reference to the Comet King’s maternal ancestors as proles confirms that he is literally half-archangel and half-prole, and so the perfect Harean moral agent.
“KNEW,” said Uriel. “I THINK HE IS DEAD NOW.” Then, “HE DID NOT LIKE ME VERY MUCH.” The Blakean parallel to Uriel, the zoa Urizen, is depicted in a very negative light.
YES. THAT ONE IS CALLED KEFITZAT HADERECH. IT MEANS SHORTENING THE PATH. This same term got bastardized by Frank Herbert into the name of the Dune Messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach.
“EVERYTHING IS A METAPHOR. EVEN IF THERE WERE A CASE OF SOMETHING NOT BEING A METAPHOR, THE EXISTENCE OF THE CASE WOULD DEFINITELY BE A METAPHOR FOR SOMETHING.” Cf. the ship Not A Metaphor
“OPEN YOUR EYES. BUT LOOK THROUGH THEM, NOT WITH THEM.” Another Blake reference: “We are led to perceive a lie / when we see with, not through, the eye.”
“THERE WAS AN ETERNAL SEPTEMBER ONE TIME, BUT THAT WAS SOMETHING DIFFERENT.” In the very early days of the Internet, it used to be mostly limited to college students who could get it through university computer systems. Every year in September, the quality of discussion would crash as a new class entered college and started using the Internet for the first time without understanding social norms. When the Internet became popular in the wider world and was invaded by hordes of not-very-smart people, Internet veterans called it “the Eternal September”.
“Nathanda pointed to the machine in the front of the room. “THARMAS,” she said. “Thermonuclear Armaments Management System.” Also a reference to Blake’s zoa Tharmas.
“SO WHO’S GOT THE COJONES TO TRY TO STOP ME?” In the next line, Sohu interprets this as “Sohu’s got…” and stops her.
He was wearing a ratty t-shirt that said THEY TRIED TO BURY US. THEY DIDN’T KNOW WE WERE LANDMINES. A reference to a counterculture slogan “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds”
She introduced herself as Robin Allison Minstrell. Robin for the bird/sparrow metaphor and the title of Chapter 68 (see below). Allison as a homage to the author of https://worldoptimization.tumblr.com/post/126848111674/100000-hours-introduction (her name isn’t Allison, but it kind of sounds like it, and I don’t want to dox her by using her real name, even though she has the most kabbalistically amazing name and it’s taking all my willpower not to reveal it). Everyone assumed Minstrell = Minstrel was a reference to Peter Singer, but it’s actually a reference to Kelsey Piper, my other inspiration for Robin’s character (everyone good has musician last names, because nothing is ever a coincidence). And the initials are R.A.M. because she’s going to be a sacrifice.
A wise woman once said that those who ask how a perfect God create a universe filled with so much that is evil miss a greater conundrum – why would a perfect God create a universe at all?” This was Miriam Godwinson, from the computer game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.
“THE EXPLICIT NAME MAY ONLY BE BORNE IN A PURE MIND.” What I was going for here was that the Comet King had already decided to become the Other King and commit atrocities, and Metatron wasn’t up for him having the Explicit Name when he did it. This is all driven by the plot – as an attempt to explain why Ana has to get the Explicit Name a second time even though the Comet King already knew it. This is also the subject of the third stanza of the Hallelujah parody.
“Cetaceans of the cross,” I said. Whale pun on “stations of the cross”
INTERLUDES PAY AND TZADEE
The Eighties and Nineties. Originally this was Interlude Pey, but I realized that the gematria value of pey was 80, and the gematria value of the next letter, tzadee, was 90, so it really made sense to combine these into a single interlude whose chapter number was the same as its title.
From these events kabbalists derive a correspondence between silver, the number 538, and accurate prediction of changes in political leadership. This is a reference to Nate Silver’s election prediction website www.fivethirtyeight.com.
His position is being temporarily filled by Larry Speakes, in accordance with nominative determinism. Reagan’s deputy press secretary really did have the last name “Speakes”.
The Untied States, Britannic Canada, Cuba, Trinidad, Tobago, El Salvador, El Pais Del Diablo, the Most Serene Empire of the Darien Gap, Brazil, North Peru, South Peru, Ecuador, Primer Meridiano, New Country, the European Communion, Neu Hansa, the Icelandic Empire, Norway, Desmethylnorway, Finland, Britain, Vatican Crater, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sloviria, Slovobia, Switzerland, Estonia, the Cyrillic Union, Novaya Zemlya, Multistan, Iran, the Israel-Palestine Anomaly, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Eridu-Xanadu Consortium, the Lotophagoi, Ethiopia, South Africa, the Malabar-Zanzibar Consortium, Somaliland, Ouagadougou City State, the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire, Indonesia, the Sulawesi Conspiracy, Lesser Mongolia, Greater Mongolia, the Platinum Horde, the Distributed Republic, Kerala, Uighurstan, Thailand, the United Hydrological Basins, Swiss Polynesia, Armenian Samoa, and honorary non-observer member THE REAL. This list of the countries in the Unsongverse is mostly jut made up on the spot to sound interesting without a lot of real significance. Primer Meridiano is some sort of weird bizarro-world counterpart of Ecuador. Desmethylnorway is a metabolism pun (in metabolic chemistry, the terms “desmethyl-” and “nor-” are kind of interchangeable, and I should have made it Desmethylway but screwed up). The European Communion is Catholic Southern Europe (descended from the EU), and Neu Hansa is Protestant Northern Europe (its name suggests a resurrection of the Hanseatic League). Multistan is all the countries whose names end in -stan in Central Asia. Vatican Crater is the former Vatican City after a nuclear exchange in Europe that forms a part of the backstory never really discussed here. The Platinum Horde is the old Golden Horde territories in Russia. THE REAL was originally going to feature more as some sort of anarchist African republic ruled by !Kung, but I never got around to it.
She had the strangest feeling that she had seen him like that once before, a long time ago, but she couldn’t quite place the memory. The vision of Metatron taking the Name from him that she saw during the eclipse before Thamiel took it from her.
“A SPIDER BEING BROKEN, OR BECAUSE OF BEING BROKEN, RISE UP AND BUILD ANEW.” “In spite of being broken, or because of being broken…” is the last verse of the Hymn of Breaking Strain, which the Comet King told Uriel and Sohu in Chapter 36.
“Had his own splinter group for a while, the Deas IRA.” Pun on Deus Irae
“Mr. Magdebuena, born to a Nigerian animist couple working for a multinational in the Israel-Palestine Anomaly.” I once read a list of Nigerian baby name meanings. One of them was “Magdebuena”, which the list said meant “Do not assassinate”. I have no idea why a Nigerian would name their kid that or whether it was a mistranslation or what, but ever since then I have wanted to write a story about a Nigerian assassin named Magdebuena, and this is it.
“We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose. Yet, his purpose is achieved in our duty. And our duty is fulfilled in service to one another. Never tiring, never yielding, never finishing, we renew that purpose today, to make our country more just and generous, to affirm the dignity of our lives and every life. This work continues, the story goes on, and an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.” This is from the real Bush inauguration speech, but it honestly fits much better in Unsong, which is actually a story, and which actually has an angel in a whirlwind directing everything.
President Bush spontaneously caught fire. “HELLLPPP!” he screamed as the entire executive, legislative, and judicial branches watched on in horror. “HELLLPPP…HELL…”. Although he was clearly trying to scream “Help!” again, his last words are in fact “Help Hell”. This completes the Comet King/Moses parallel, in that the Comet King’s destiny is given to him by a burning Bush.
In the midst of the word he was trying to say – in the midst of his laughter and glee – he had softly and suddenly vanished away… A reference to Lewis Carroll’s poem “Hunting of the Snark”, where Dylan stole the name “Boojum” from.
…because Dylan Alvarez had hacked his teleprompter to display the Mortal Name. Some people didn’t quite follow this. In this universe, JA-HO-RAH is the Mortal Name, which kills anyone who speaks it (see Interlude Dalet). Bush was doing the usual State of the Union thing of name-dropping random heroic troops. Whatever this person’s name was originally supposed to be, Dylan hacked Bush’s teleprompter so that it displayed “Sonja Horah” instead, causing Bush to unintentionally speak the Mortal Name and kill himself.
First in English via his surname, second in Hebrew via his initials. Hebrew words come from vowel-optional roots. The Hebrew root MLK (usually pronounced melekh) means “king”.
“Luther” comes from Greek “eleutheria” meaning “freedom”. But in English it can also mean a lute player. Compare to “singer” and “piper” above.
They said that he was literally heartless, that his blood was pumped by a strange contraption connected to a battery pack strapped around his chest. This is true, see https://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/vice-president-dick-cheney-no-pulse-heart-pump-artificial-heart-article-1.151261
They said that he carried the Sword of Chang, a Bush family heirloom that made its wielder invincible in political battles at the cost of a portion of his soul. See the section on Senator Rubio at https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/11/16/hardball-questions-for-the-next-debate/
They said he had a ranch down in Texas where he hunted the most dangerous game of all: man. A reference to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Cheney_hunting_accident
They said that one day when he sat for Sunday services at St. John’s Church, the pastor had read from the Gospel of Matthew -“Who among you, if a child asks for bread, would give him a stone?” – and Cheney had stood up immediately and raised his hand until they informed him it was a rhetorical question. I should be clear: I totally just made this one up.
Nobody, he declared, respected the Constitution more than he did, and he would prove it. He decreed that out of respect for the Constitution, all copies of the document must henceforth be covered with a silken shroud and removed from human gaze, lest its sanctity be polluted by human sight, human touch, or human interpretation. I stole this (with permission) from a role-playing story by my friend Ardashir. His version was brilliant and hilarious, and I figured it I could get the same effect by plagiarizing it. But I was never really able to develop it or make it work, and all the references to the Shrouded Constitution throughout the book just sound kind of weird.
Walls of Kujiracho A whale pun: “kujira” = Japanese for “whale” vs. the Walls of Jericho
So the only way Acher could get the good consequences of repenting was by not doing it for the consequences? Foreshadowing. All of this is one long metaphor for the Comet King’s dilemma: the only way he can get the bad consequences of sinning (going to Hell) is by not doing it for the consequences. This is probably one of the parallels that leads the Comet King to pretend to be Acher as his cover identity.
Dylan took off his wig, exited stage right, and came back with a bag marked RELICS. He dug through it, throwing various strange and unpleasant-looking body parts aside. “Mmmm….pancreas of St. Pancras…Saul of Tarsus’s tarsals…facial bones of St. Boniface…no, it’s with the secular stuff.” He took out a different bag. “Aristotle’s pupil…J. S. Bach’s well-tempered clavicle…aha!” “Aristotle’s pupil” is a reference to Alexander the Great, who was taught by Aristotle. J.S. Bach wrote a song called “The Well-Tempered Clavier”.
“Lola Rivers.” Again, a character is weirdly aware of her own Blakean parallel, which in this case is the River Ololon.
Then a few other grimoires. The Goetia. The Sacred Magic of Abramelin The Mage. The Antichrist’s Cookbook. All of these are real grimoires except the last, which is a pun on “The Anarchist’s Cookbook”.
For God says (Joshua 8:1) “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack AI.” The actual verse is referring to Ai, a city in Canaan.
But if I’d been a little less shocked by the explosion, I might have moved past that and posited a Hebrew origin coming from bat Teller. Bat Teller is Hebrew for “daughter of Teller”, presumably a reference to Sarah.
“What do an apple and orange have in common?” “They both foretell leaves falling.” Katja Grace came up with this one; it only works when spoken aloud. The color orange foretells leaves falling in the autumn. An apple foretells Eve’s falling in Eden.
As for THARMAS, seven of the ten towers were smoking ruins; the other three were heavily scarred. In the epilogue, THARMAS is going to be used to make the new universe. Seven of ten towers destroyed plus the rest damaged = seven of ten sephirot cracked plus the rest damaged, indicating the new universe will work the same as our own.
He turned his gaze north. In New Jersey there was a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside some white chickens. For some reason if anyone touched or moved it then the whole Southern Hemisphere crashed. This is a reference to a famous poem by William Carlos Williams (from New Jersey): https://poets.org/poem/red-wheelbarrow
It hit home, and Brenda Burns went up in a conflagration of nominative determinism. IE her last name is “Burns”
“There were times I wished I could be like Mark, wished that I could just shrug off all the injustice of the world and be like…” He half-sat, half-slid into Ngo’s desk chair, placed her coffee mug theatrically in front of him, and announced in the middle of the encroaching flames “This is fine.” This is a reference to the meme with the dog. See https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/this-is-fine
In their place stood great pillars with the Sea-Parting Name maintaining corridors of dry land between each borough, across which cars drove in defiance of the walls of water ready to crash down on them; the works of Robert Moses supplanted by those of regular Moses. Robert Moses was the planner who designed most of New York’s transit system.
“Woe, woe, woe to the great city, the mighty city. For in one hour has thy judgment come!” Revelation 18:10 predicts that someone will call out this phrase during the apocalypse.
Something opened in Ana’s mind. New memories. Knowledge she shouldn’t have. A deep loss. She didn’t cry, because time was running short, and she knew how she was going to open the black sail. In the Epilogue, this is revealed to be Erica’s spirit moving into her mind after Erica’s death, through the kabbalistic marriage.
The seventh sail opened, and there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Compare Revelation 8:1 “The lamb opened the seventh seal, and there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”.
“It’s the Leviathan!” Tom said superficially. This is a kind of joke called a Tom Swifty ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Swifty ), where you have a character called Tom say something and the adverb is a pun on what he says. In this case superficially = super-fish, a good description of the Leviathan. Yes, I named this character Tomas just so I could make this one sentence work.
She thought with all her strength, and with strength beyond her own. She felt oppressed by a terrible cleverness and a wild rebellion. Finally she came to a decision. Thanks to the web of kabbalistic marriages, her mind currently contains Dylan Alvarez (the terrible cleverness) and Erica Lowry (the wild rebellion), giving her strength beyond her own.
“Puts All Heaven In A Rage The original Blake couplet was “A Robin Red-Breast in a cage / puts all heaven in a rage”, which ties into the theme of the Comet King angry at Robin’s impending imprisonment.
“Love Seeketh Not Itself To Please” The chapter had to be called this because the last four chapter names together form a stanza from Blake’s “The Pebble And The Clod”, but I like how it fits with the sexual meaning of this chapter number, where two lovers both try to please each other.
The force of the battle had split the mountain in two. Sohu finally gets to destroy mountains like she’s always wanted!
Everybody already has enlightenment. Why did Buddha sit for six years, see a star, and then get enlightenment? That’s stupid! If you see a star, you get enlightenment now! — Ch’unsong Sunim Quote used because it’s plot-relevant, but also because it’s by a Buddhist scholar who has “unsong” in his name.
Even Leonard Cohen writes, in his Anthem, “There is a kraken: everything”. The real verse is “there is a crack in everything”.
So we enact them in order. Various adventures, activating each aspect of God in turn. We start in my Kingdom. We go to San Francisco, the Foundation, where Heaven meets Earth. We shine with Glory. We win a Victory. We cross through Tiferet via the Canal. We cross Chesed by committing an act of great kindness, then Gevurah with an act of great harshness. We pass Da’at and its dark night, its collapse of everything earthly and recognizable. Now here we are. Binah, understanding. And Chokhmah, Wisdom. Which you have just displayed. Leaving us at the end of our road. The same ritual the Comet King describes must be enacted by Ana and her companions. Ana starts in UNSONG headquarters (the Kingdom), the goes to San Francisco. They shine with Glory (the overloaded Symphony), then win a victory (over the Drug Lord) and cross the Canal. They commit an act of great kindness (putting the dying Ellis on the spaceship), then an act of great harshness (kicking Azore off the ship). The destruction of Uriel’s machine and the collapse of the natural order represents passage through Da’at, from the comprehensible world to the ineffable heavens. By discovering the Captain’s true identity, Ana displays Understanding and Wisdom, completing the ritual and reaching Kether, the Crown of God.
Leonard’s from Canada, his history checks out. A Leonard Cohen cameo.
“Of course it’s a metaphor! Kabbalah says that everything is a metaphor for God, the only thing that’s not a metaphor for God is God Himself.” Which is why God is on a ship called Not A Metaphor.
“THERE IS NO OBJECTIVE COSMIC UNEMPLOYMENT RATE.” “Huh?” “THERE IS NO OBJECTIVE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION OF HOW MANY UNIVERSES HAVE A JOB. Another Job/Job pun.
WORLDS WHERE RANDOM COMBINATIONS OF SYLLABLES INVOKE DIVINE POWERS. This is the explanation of the Names of God. They just give God more bits of randomness with which to separate universes from each other.
YOUR WORLD IS VERY FAR FROM THE CENTER INDEED. IT IS IN THE MIDDLE OF A VAST WASTE, WHERE NOTHING ELSE GROWS. ALL OF THE WORLDS THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN PLANTED THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN ABOMINATIONS OF WICKEDNESS. BUT BY COINCIDENCE PILED UPON COINCIDENCE, YOURS WAS NOT. YOURS WILL GROW INTO A THING OF BEAUTY THAT WILL GLORIFY MY HOLY NAME This is my explanation for why the plot contains so many shoehorned coincidences. It’s not that I’m a bad writer! It’s that only the versions of the book that have a happy ending can exist, so the book will end up with a happy ending no matter how complicated the process that gets it there.
“TELL THEM I SAID ‘GO FISH’.” “Go fish” is kind of outdated slang for “I’m not going to tell you.” This is a joking explanation for why the Book of Job contains a bunch of poetry about drawing out Leviathan with a fishhook instead of a real answer to the Problem of Evil.
“BEFORE THE WORLD, I SPOKE TO ADAM KADMON IN MY GARDEN. I OFFERED HIM THE CHOICE TO REMAIN IN THE PARADISE BEYOND EXISTENCE, OR TO TASTE OF GOOD AND EVIL, BE SEPARATED FROM ME, AND ATTAIN INDEPENDENT BEING. HE CHOSE THE LATTER.” This is positing that the story about the apple in Eden is a metaphor for Adam being asked to choose between a full universe with both good and evil, versus a tiny micro-universe with only Good. He chose the former.
“COME AND SEE,” said God. See Revelation 6.
She screamed something unintelligible, then it became a gurgle, then her eyes closed. Presumably she is cursing the Other King, thus fulfilling the prophecy that the Cometspawn will die screaming and cursing their father’s name.
My poor Robin, taken from her nest. How could I let God let that pass? This is why the secret of the Other King ends up as the verse about providence in the fall of a sparrow. The exact riddle (“how is Rhode Island like a fallen bird?”) just says bird, not sparrow.
Then the Comet King muttered to himself, almost too soft to hear: “Somebody has to and no one else will” and he plunged the sword into his heart and died. The intended meaning here is that the Comet King is reading Aaron’s mind, and says this as an answer to the question in the Rubaiyat stanza preceding.
“Yes” – Will Godwin Supposedly a quote by English philosopher William Godwin, but actually meant as an answer to the question implicit in his name (“Will God win?”)
[“And not even the angels in Heaven above, nor the demons down under the sea, could ever dissever my soul from the soul of the beautiful Anna – ] This is a quote from Poe’s “Annabel Lee”
[I’m stuck with seven people in my head?!] A physicist reading this book noted that the structure of kabbalistic marriages inside Aaron’s head right now forms the graph E8 ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E8_(mathematics) ), generally considered to have some kind of mysterious tie with the source of the laws of physics. If they are actually recreating the universe in their own image, that would be a reasonable explanation for this.
I thought of all the villains I had feared, revealed to be unsung heroes all along. A very late alternate explanation for the book title.